Victor Séjour Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

Victor Séjour 1817-1874

Séjour was a pioneering African American playwright who achieved notable success in the nineteenth-century Parisian theater.


Séjour was born Juan Victor Séjour Marcou et Ferrand in New Orleans. His father was Juan Francois Louis Séjour Marcou, who operated a cleaning establishment, and his mother was d'Eloisa Phillippe Ferrand. Séjour's parents held education in high esteem, and they sent their son to the Saint-Barbe Academy, where he proved himself a gifted student. When he was seventeen, Séjour wrote a poem celebrating the anniversary of La Société des Artisans, an association of free black mechanics to which he belonged. Les Artisans greeted the poem with enthusiasm. In 1836, when he was nineteen, his parents sent him to Paris to further his education. In Paris he met Cyrille Bisette, who edited the abolitionist journal La Revue des Colonies and who published Séjour's short story "Le Mulâtre" in his magazine in 1837. In 1841 Séjour published Le Retour de Napoléon, an heroic ode honoring the French emperor. Séjour's interest in heroic themes and his enthusiasm for Napoleon continued throughout his life. The success of this poem gained him entrance to Parisian literary circles, where he met Alexandre Dumas, père, and Émile Augier. Séjour's dramatic career began in 1844 when his five-act play Diégarias was performed at the Théâtre-Français. Throughout the 1850s and into the 1860s Séjour was one of the most popular playwrights of the Parisian stage. His plays of the period were warmly received, as audiences enjoyed the grandiose prose, sumptuous costumes, and spectacular settings. In 1860 he was made a member of the French Légion d'Honneur. By 1865, however, public tastes had shifted and Séjour's popularity had begun to wane; by the early 1870s he was destitute and ill. He died from tuberculosis in 1874.


During his career Séjour had more than twenty plays staged. Among his recurring dramatic themes are family relationships, nationalism, religion, and social justice. His plays reflect the influence of William Shakespeare, as well as his knowledge of other English Renaissance playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, and of French writers, including Victor Hugo, who was clearly a model for Séjour.

Diégarias, a verse drama in five acts, shows affinities to both Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta by the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe. As did Shakespeare, Séjour produced a play about the English King Richard III. And the verse drama La Chute de Séjan is possibly an adaptation of Jonson's Sejanus. Séjour's use of the monologue in his plays and the high-flown rhetoric of his characters have been compared to similar devices employed by Hugo. His dramas often depict great emotional extremes, focusing on passionate love, hate, jealousy, revenge, and intrigue.


Séjour's plays were greatly admired and popular in the Paris of his day. Their passionate intensity and complexity were highly praised. But as literary tastes changed, such attributes were disparaged as overblown and convoluted. Today few critics place Séjour among the top ranks of nineteenth-century playwrights; most do, however, commend his achievement in providing thrilling and engaging melodramas to appreciative audiences, and for attaining remarkable success in an arena typically closed to African Americans. Placing him in the context of nineteenth-century Louisiana, T. A. Daley has declared simply: "New Orleans produced no finer poet, no better dramatist … than Victor Séjour."